Improving access to programs and addressing staffing issues were among the top concerns expressed by a Senate panel during a Tuesday hearing with the USDA’s rural development chief.
Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee also questioned Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small on the agency’s prospects for its rural broadband, rural housing and biofuels programs in the farm bill. of 2023.
“When rural development is at its best, we do three essential things,” said Torres Small. “The first is to respond to a clear local vision through partnerships; the second is to make it easier for communities to access our support, wherever they are; and the third, to effectively address local challenges through modern and resilient infrastructure. »
The bulk of the two-hour hearing was spent unpacking that second point, with senators from both parties probing Torres Small on the issues their constituents faced when applying for specific agency programs.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said rural community leaders, businesses, farmers and ranchers “of all sizes” find it “extremely burdensome” to access the rural development programs they pass for.” hundreds of hours” completing applications.
“None of this is productive,” Bennet added. “And for years that I’ve been on this committee, it’s never improved. So I think we’d like to improve it.”
His comments echoed similar questions raised by ranking committee member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who said there is a disparity in program rewards between rural communities that employ writers. of grants to complete applications and those that do not.
Torres Small said these disparities speak to the level of competition between communities for limited grants and loans.
But she also acknowledged that some agency programs have “more difficult applications” or involve more complex documents due to “congressional conversations to make sure our investments are worthwhile.”
Requests for programs to increase poultry and meat processing capacity, for example, require a feasibility study “because we’ve had a lot of questions from Congress about how to make sure it’s going to last longer. that, you know, 10 years,” Torres Small said.
She later said the Farm Bill was a “great opportunity” to look at the “legal requirements that actually make it difficult to apply” and “in doing so we could also identify sometimes it’s our flaws, its regulations that make things more difficult.”
Ultimately, she said “it takes the support of people on the ground” to help applicants through the process. This support includes agency staff in state and regional offices as well as nonprofit organizations that rural development employs to provide technical assistance.
Torres Small said the agency continues to hire more staff to modernize programs, speed up environmental reviews and streamline other program processes, but it also needs to “balance a workforce eligible for the retirement at 47%”.
Definitions of “rural” differ from program to program
Other senators on the committee asked Torres Small to detail investments in rural broadband, an issue that has received billions in funding through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Power Reduction Act. inflation.
Responding to a question from Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., about the ReConnect program, Torres Small said officials have been careful to identify where overlapping different broadband expansion projects “might be appropriate. or where “we have to make strong decisions to prevent this from happening.”
Torres Small, in another exchange on broadband programs, said the agency has reviewed the independent service provider maps it uses to measure internet coverage and “we’ve heard good responses from people about these improvements”.
The broadband discussion eventually led a few senators to ask about the differences in the definition of “rural” among the agency’s various programs.
They noted that a non-urban municipality might qualify for a program because it meets the criteria for a “rural community”, participate in the program, and then be ineligible for the same program the following year because it does not meet more to the definition of the program, even if it is still “rural”.
Torres Small said those differences are due to statutory variations in the definition of “rural,” explaining that Congress has the ability to revise the terms of the program.
She pointed to the ReConnect program as “one of the broadest definitions” because it measures “rural” in terms of population density and distance between populations. This definition adds complexity to applications but also gives more priority to the most underserved communities.
“What was really helpful with ReConnect was that we had a definition of what’s eligible, but we also had a definition of what we wanted to prioritize,” Torres Small said. “I think that adds to the nuance of which places we just won’t fund, and which places we want to fund more.”